Q&A with Coach Craig Bray

The Sun Devil defense made tremendous strides in the 2007 season, and established itself as one of the better units in the Pac-10. Furthermore, the future looks very bright for this group, especially up front. Devils Digest sat down with ASU's Defensive Coordinator and Linebackers Coach, to get his assessment of the ASU defense, and the recruiting efforts for this unit.

DevilsDigest: Coach, let's start by reviewing the two linebackers who were signed in the 2008 recruiting class.

Craig Bray: Brandon Magee - "He's a dual sport guy and a very explosive player. Very strong player with above average speed who played very well. He adds the dimension that we're looking for, which is more speed and explosiveness. He could play the SAM or WILL position. He also plays baseball, so there will probably be a point in time where in order for him to get very good in either sport he'll have to decide. But we're very excited to have him."

Shelly Lyons – "He's one of the catches of our recruiting class and I'm very excited about him too. He wasn't highly recruited and is a kid that just now is growing into himself. He weights 230 pounds but looks like he's 205. Has very long arms and runs very very well. He's a kind of linebacker that can play inside but still have the speed to run players down from the inside out. He could play the MIKE or play another box linebacker when we go two inside. It's just depends on the configuration."

DD: The fact that only two linebackers were signed in the class – is that a testament to the talent and depth you have coming back at the position?

CB: "It's a testament to the depth, no question. We had a lot of guys on scholarships (at linebacker). I don't know if it (signing just two linebackers) defines our talent, but yes it does define that we have a lot of bodies there."

DD: Let's talk about the players signed in the 2008 class in the other defensive positions. I would have to think that you're very pleased with the defensive linemen you signed…

CB: "I think we've upgraded ourselves and it will show very early in the fall. I think we're gonna be more athletic and have more depth. We're gonna have a freshman or two that will have the opportunity to play, but the quality of the players we signed is one that excites you about the future. The JC kids that we signed – we feel very comfortable that they can come in right away and make us better. The quality and quantity of the defensive linemen we signed - it's as good as you can ask for."

DD: When you look at the secondary, the safety position just like linebacker, not a lot of players signed because of the returning numbers. On the other hand, you needed and got a lot of help at cornerback…

CB: "I do feel very comfortable at safety because of who we have coming back, but maybe you wanted to get an extra guy or two for the future. But because of the scholarship numbers you obviously can't just load up at positions where you already have enough depth. "

"The thing that we noticed when we got here last year was that there was a large separation in the class. Usually, you got fairly equal numbers of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. We had a lot of juniors and seniors, but not enough freshmen and sophomores. So it does make it difficult when you think about taking X number of guys."

DD: Coach Erickson and the staff have always preached about the importance of speed on defense, and as the old football cliché goes – you can't coach speed. Thus, when you evaluate defensive players, are you willing to take upon players that may have very average tackling skills and yet possess the speed you're looking for, just because it's easier to teach technique than speed?

CB: "Absolutely, but a player still has to show the quality football instincts. If you have a bunch of guys that run fast but can't do anything else – you'll have a bunch of track guys. You have to combine the two and there's no science to it, but you just have to identify the toughness and see if a kid has a look of a football player. Technically, he may not be that good but that's OK because it's our job as coaches to teach that."

"But like you said, athleticism and speed are things that we can improve own, but really can't develop. They either got it or they don't. There are very few cases where a kid goes from not being able to run to being a very fast athlete. So we're always looking for athleticism and speed first, but never at the cost of taking a guy that is just a good football player too."

DD: As you look back at the 2007 season and the linebackers group in specific, how would you evaluate that group?

CB: "I think Robert James and Travis Goethel played very well. I thought we were really inconsistent at inside linebacker until we moved Mike Nixon. What Mike brought was a player that definitely could get everyone lined up, and execute the defense the way we needed to execute it. He probably wasn't who you really wanted there from the standpoint of strength, power and those kinds of things. But when we went back and evaluated the season he really did a great job for us. Our efficiency in executing the defensive calls really improved when Mike was in there."

"I think (Gerald) Munns would be really good at that position, but he went through a lot of injuries that kept him out. Mike is a guy that played all three positions. We had bodies at linebackers, but we didn't have a lot of depth."

DD: So, based of what you're saying: coming up in spring practice it will be a two-man competition between Nixon and Munns for the starting MIKE position?

CB: "We'll see. Morris (Wooten) isn't out of it, but he has to become more reliable in the system. He's the guy that we would like to have in there from a stand point of a player that has very good speed, very powerful and when he does things right he does them very well. But he wasn't doing things right often and when that becomes a liability you have to make a change no matter how athletic or fast a guy is. So I think it's a three-man competition going into the spring and at the end of spring it should boil down to a two-man competition."

DD: How about the SAM and WILL spots? Who are the players fighting for starting positions there?

CB: "Travis (Goethel) has cemented himself there at the SAM. He's limited, but he's a real good football player that has done a lot of good things for us. He plays smart and he'll have much better instincts this year and will be a better player. We're a little concerned who'll be playing behind Travis. I know we can always move Mike (Nixon) there, but we're gonna try and develop Chad Lindsey or even Jeff Bereuter. We'll even look at one of the (incoming) freshmen there – they'll bring a lot of athleticism."

"The WILL position – you kind of wonder what's gonna happen. We're coming in totally green there. We got Ryan McFoy that will be competing for it. McFoy would have definitely helped us last year, but he didn't learn the defense that fast. He can bring us that dimension that Robert James had. Aaron Oliver is extremely young, but that doesn't matter if he can come in and make plays. We're also gonna try Colin Parker who's moving from safety. Colin had some knee injuries and we were not sure if he can really be a cover guy at safety. But he could have the coverage ability and speed at linebacker. So we'll have a three-man battle there."

DD: How about the defense as a whole – how would you rate it based on its 2007 performance?

CB: "Solid and better than expected. Disappointed in really two games – the bowl game, which was really the most disappointing because we were just not ready to play and USC. It wasn't because we were that overmatched; it was because we didn't do our job very well. But other than those two games, our defense was above average. Our run defense was in the top 10 in the country at the end of the regular season. So I think we made strides and we'll be able to grow from that."

DD: As you know a few of the team wins were comebacks. From a defensive perspective, do you see it as a glass half empty, half full? In other words, disappointed that you spotted opponents 10, 14 points but also pleased at keeping points to a minimum and being resilient in the later stages of the game?

CB: "Sure. But in some of those games, the other teams scored when an interception went for a touchdown, a kickoff went for a touchdown – so there were a lot of variables as to why there were points on the board. Sometimes it was our mistakes as well. As a defense, our job is to prevent teams from scoring. When we get behind, we have to make sure that we make the plays that give us the opportunity to get back in it or give our offense enough tries so they can get back in it. We have to get better at some of the stuff we didn't do well and improve on the things we did do well."

DD: You mentioned that you were keeping the schemes simple last season, because you were introducing a new defense and you wanted to ensure that players will know their assignments. Do you plan to open the playbook more in 2008?

CB: "Yes. We'll do some stuff in the spring that we didn't do last year. We'll expand the defense. I don't know if it will be more complex. Because sometimes complex is harder to run, but as far as expanding the package – there's no question that we will do that. Our defense has to be effective more than anything else. The point isn't to be more complex, but to stop people from scoring. That has always been our goal."

"We know there are things we have to do better. We have to pressure the passer better. We have to create more pressure schemes that create more problems for the offense…so there are things that can fall into that complexity definition. But we have to attack the offense more – no question about that."

DD: Going into spring practice, what are your goals for the defense?

CB: "To improve. We're gonna add some coverages we didn't do last year, and we're gonna try and develop our pressure package better. We have to continue and run what we do as a base. We have some young kids that are gonna try to fit in and we have to indentify those guys. We have to come out of spring with a lot more confidence than last spring."

"I thought our kids did a great job last fall coming out ready to go in two-a-days because we were much more improved than we left spring, and that came from all the hard work they put in the summer. We need to get to it a higher level than we were last spring and then hopefully they'll do the same thing, if not more, and we'll be that much farther ahead when we start two-a-days."

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